Friday, September 18, 2009

Talk About Getting More Eyeballs!

3D television: a simultaneous blessing and curse. More realism for viewers/more makeup for stars. Better visualization at sporting events/captive eyeballs.

With the problems involved in using 3D technology, most importantly the required glasses, all eyes will be trained longer on the television. No more watching out of the corner of one's eye: this is a monopoly technology. Doing this is not doing anything else. (Kind of like trying to text on an iPhone.)

Advertisers, sports fanatics and television manufacturers will love this. People wishing a less intrusive technological presence in their life... not so much

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eugenics, Sociobiology and Evolution

As the child of Holocaust survivors I've never really understood the whole eugenics part of the the world horror at the Nazis. That is to say, the Nazis advocated eugenics, and we Jews, and the world around us, decried the practice or even the thought.

Idiotic. Eugenics was as much a part of the world in the 1920s and 1930s as any number of new world policies. It even made sense, makes sense, even today, in light of what we understand of genetics, inheritance and the terrible price of flawed genes.

True, Hitler expanded the view to inferior "races" in addition to the genetically impaired. And true, Hitler's ideas of what constituted "impaired" would be very different from others.

And there's the rub. Like dogs whose breeds have been bent to the point of breaking (deaf Dalmatians, sway-backed Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds), we've now plenty of experience in enhancing traits in pursuit of a breed tailored to a need. We have turkeys so stupid they drown in a rainstorm, but have sufficiently large "breast" meat to make us happy on Thanksgiving Day feasts. We've modified cows through targeted breeding (and that's the core of eugenics!) to the point that if they produced more milk, their udders would drag in the dung-mud of their own making at all times.

Thanks to glasses, my children are the products of two previous generations wherein all previous generations have worn glasses. Had this been even 500 years ago, it would be a certain curse -- I probably wouldn't have lived as long as I have, simply by not being to see much beyond my nose. We've now sent these traits down the genetic path with our children.

Sure, vision is relatively easy to cure (if you have money): glasses, contact lenses, lens surgery, lens replacement in that economic order. But what about ADHD? Schizophrenia? Heart disease? Breast cancer? If we subsidize health care, through increased risk pool payments with private insurance, or through public health spending, shouldn't society take steps to reduce the rate of these births?

It boils down, as it does many times, to the rights of the many versus the rights of the few. Abortion, forced sterilization of sex offenders... it's a slope we don't directly address in our society, at least as a concept worthy of extrapolation.

For the record, just as I bless my fortune at being able to afford eye surgery, I'm glad I had the chance to live long enough to pay for it.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Product Review? Here? Wow... Hyperwords


Just a quick plug for a very handy plugin for Firefox, called Hyperwords. It's a great shortcut for lots of my usual functions (e.g., highlighting and copying text, then opening up a new window and Googling the term). While there seem to be some cursor focus issues (sometimes it's a bit sticky) and it frequently opens up extraneous windows. But so far it's not getting in the way of enjoying this neat little bit of efficiency.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When Good Sites go Bad

There's a lot of talk about 'botnets, and how Captcha-type mechanisms have been conquered by determined hackers.

Orphan sites, and forums, are equally juicy targets for spammers and their ilk. Here's what was done to a site for a company not even yet public:

Note the little circle on the right side. There are eighty five more pages of this tripe.

Spammers are using this site as a repository for their spam, as a way to game search engines to pull traffic their way.

I talked with the folks owning this site, and what scares me is the inability, even at a startup phase, the principals didn't know how to do emergency things like shut down the server or the forum. BTW, I'm writing this three hours after talking with the web designer about the need to immediately shut down the site.

Sigh.

This is why evil rules. Because good and neutral are lazy, and bad never stops.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Subtle Signs of the Times

Entropy is rarely visible. And, like a black hole, the decay of economic energy in our (puny) human universe is sometimes best seen through the observable side-effects.

Two cases in recent point. As a long-time unemployed person, I try not to spend much money on meals. When I want to treat myself, I snag the end caps of roasts, the part grocers usually toss. Then I go to the cheese case, and find the thin slivers of cheese. I'm not saying this for pity's sake; I'm laying this out because as someone falling from six figures to four figures of income, it's almost an academic experience: it's happening to someone else.

This one day, last week, I went trolling for cheese, after scoring two bucks off a nice beef roast. Thin slices of expensive cheese, Newton would tell you, are as expensive as hunks of their cheaper cousins -- but I don't need a bargain in quantity, just a match to a price point and hunger. It took me a few minutes to realize that something had changed in the world of premium, moldy milk products: all the labels had been turned around or folded under the cheese. That means consumers would have to pick up and handle the cheese to see the price. Coupled with the lack of pricing on the tags, the best customers could hope for is to find the right cheese, but not the unit -- or best -- prices.

I thought it was a quirk and, after laboriously fondling the future fondue, found fabulous fat and trundled off to the cashier. But the next week I visited a different branch in the same upscale chain, and found the same pernicious labeling.

In Texas this is technically legal: the products each have full pricing information, including unit price, weight and total price. But the task of discerning the real cost has been turned from a visual to a visceral process: consumers must literally touch all the merchandise to find the bargain they want.

Assumedly, consumers will either pull the thinnest cheese they find (some of which retail for $29.99/pound), or pull the cheese they like (ka-ching!).

The second reminds me of the Little Matchstick Girl. I went to a movie recently (gotta have bread and circus!). Popcorn, soda and sugar products were on hand, as usual, at the concession stand. They were also on hand at the stairs/ramp leading to the theaters. They were also being hawked in the theaters, from cute little carts. It wasn't exactly the cigarette girl making the rounds, or the beer vendor at the ball park, but it was getting close. The employees running the makeshift stands said it had been going on for a couple of weeks.

These aren't big changes. One might argue that, especially in the latter case, it was just a matter of collecting some extra revenue. I disagree. These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures. These retail establishments can't lower staffing by much before service is obviously impacted. Instead, they're opting for increasing the revenue potential of each employee.

I bought the cheese, but turned the labels back around. I bought a little candy box ($4.00) from one of the in-theater vendors. We all need to do our part to keep folks employed.

Now, about my resume...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Crying Wolf to Save a Buck

I suppose it was inevitable. It's not enough to save money by laying people off: the next level of optimization is to keep the saps from blaming the company that laid them off for the company's acts. After all, an unemployment by way of incompetence means no strings, whereas an unemployment claim acknowledged as "valid" might result in a slower bleed of damages...

Here are the facts:
  1. Employees fired for cause don't get the same level of unemployment benefits. In some states, no benefits.
  2. Employers who fire lots of people get targeted for additional investigation to ensure they're not ripping folks off.
So, firing people for "cause," no matter what that might be, is preferable to just chunking 'em. No matter what they might have brought to the table in table, and "intangibles" that might make the process work.

This is a small post, in the small hours of the night.

But, in the scheme of things, it's a cry in the darkness, lest the greater night fall upon more of us.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Shave the Moon: Save the Planet

Until we earthlings can figure out how to do carbon sequestration, we need some way to dampen the greenhouse effect. After reviewing all the existing methods (populist ones shown here in an MSNBC interactive page), I've got another idea: Shave the Moon.

Well, sure, I could submit a paper on this to Analog, but I'm not a mechanical engineer, nor do I play one on television. I'm a writer with a science brain. So here goes:

Put grinders on the moon to take moon rock and turn it into moon dust. Power the grinders with nuclear or solar cells. Establish human settlements on the polar regions, and mine water to be turned into propellant. Push the dust to cover the L-1 space between the Earth and the Sun. Much like other ideas involving 16 trillion umbrellas, this would reduce the energy coming from the sun and hitting the earth.

Just like gold that gilt's a stone surface, it doesn't take much powder to cover an extensive area, provided it's dissipated in an even and efficient manner. From everything I've listed above, that's the only technology I'm not sure of, but I think an electrostatic device could probably make that happen. Another way to increase the lifetime of the dust's effectiveness is to launch it with sufficient velocity at the sun, so that between the solar wind pushing and the acceleration from the initial push, the particles make it to the L-1 point with zero thrust.

Advantages over other proposed methods:
  • Keeps sun's energy off the planet
  • Any dust that makes it back to the earth would add to the shielding effect on the earth as it floats in the atmosphere
  • We can stop renewing the cloud whenever we need to, which would add to the sun's energy hitting the earth
  • Solution construction and energy utilization, and all the mining, takes place on the moon, so we spare earth the environmental impact of all that activity.
  • We get a solid, sustainable settlement on the moon, including launch facilities, and a robust, manned presence in earth orbit.
Unintended consequences worth writing about:
  • What happens if the moon dust rocket misses? Who cares? It's not pointed at the earth! But make it 'frangible' anyway: it comes apart into dust upon contact with almost anything
  • Brittle boned astronauts. Mmy plan is that space crews start in zero-gee orbit. Then they get rotated to the moon, where they get some of their 'sea legs' back. Then they come back to earth. Keeps the talent up for as long as possible. Dunno, they'd probably have to double up on the Fosomax.
Extra bonus: the albedo of moon rock is much higher (more reflective) than absorbtive carbon powder.  This means the earth would be shielded from the initial ray, and the energy absorbed by the lunar rock powder would not add to the earth's heat sink.

Comments, anyone?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Marco? Polo! Google's Latitude and Privacy Concerns

Google, for all that the glitter has acquired some of the large company patina of tarnish, is a great innovator, particularly when it comes to balancing privacy with feature set on a web-based and information acquisitive platform.

Latitude, which is an opt-in service allowing people to permit other people to see where, approximately, they are located (or bluff them by putting in a manual, possibly incorrect, location), sounds like "yet another step in Big Brother's ever-watching eye." PC World, in their article on Latitude, wonders aloud about how law enforcement might use this tool. This is part of a larger ignorance on the part of the public, and the reporters supposedly writing to inform, about how privacy does and does not work in this day and age.

I'm getting a bit tired of folks worrying about the wrong thing. Law enforcement doesn't need Google to find someone: all they need is a warrant to the phone companies, which will quickly track and triangulate any cell phone that's powered up to within about 30 feet. No Google, no special cell phone, no evil NSA spying required.

Same goes for customer purchase patterns. While loyalty cards (i.e., a frequent buyer card providing discounts or access to special offers) allow retailers to target specific people with specific purchases, they don't need those cards to know at least approximately who is buying what: they can simply connect, as Google does with IP addresses, the purchaser's credit card number with what they purchase when and where, and theoretically could tailor on-the-spot discount for them based on that. The loyalty cards are used more to target known users in advance, to pull them in and provide them with a better customer experience (read this article, especially the survey findings chapter). 

When the loyalty cards first came out, I was against them: after all, I don't want my name associated with what butter I like, or other intensely personal purchases. But that's a joke: at the macro level, my credit card company knows where I shop, what percentage of my purchases are from this market versus another, what my geographic range is, and how much I buy at the local pornateria (that would be $0, BTW). 

All an investigator needs is a warrant signed by a judge, and then they have access to all the target's purchases. It's not as fast or easy as the TV shows might make out, but it's accurate, as far as it goes, at the store level.

Book stores made a big brouhaha about being asked by law enforcement to pony up purchase records by individuals under investigation. Had the individuals used cash, neither the stores nor law enforcement could have determined what was purchased (without sifting through all the cash register video surveillance footage). With credit or debit cards, investigators need not ask any merchant about the purchases -- just go to the credit card issuers and get the data.

Google's Latitude product is neat, and certainly doesn't reduce privacy, to the extent that cell phone opt-in members have strong passwords protecting their Google accounts and keep watch over their cell phones so they are not secretly enrolled by a stalker. 

There is a feature worth adding: the ability for parents to force the phone to be used for tracking, without the kids' being able to generalize, bluff, or turn off the feature. Adding that would, I think, add to Google's "do no evil" reputation, one that, I think, can always use a little polishing in this information-rich day and age.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

{sung} Where Have All / The Good Jobs Gone...

Just did a search of all jobs posted in LinkedIn in the Seattle, Portland and Austin areas. 64, 46 and 26 respectively -- that's over the last four weeks. Few of the jobs were 'exclusive to LinkedIn.'

Granted, we've had the holiday season to contend with. Given my experience in personnel management and planning, however, this is a grave sign. A lot of the postings are attempts to hook into the social business network (and LinkedIn is certainly the premier network in that respect). Not posting there means that companies aren't even willing to spend $195 on a 30-day posting -- and that points to a real retrenchment in hiring practices.

In the same vein, the number of requirements for each position have grown. Where an engineer position used to have a litany of languages and expected environments, there are deeper toolsets listed. This points to extremely tactical hiring. I'll hit that problem in a separate post, but this is not a good thing for succesful job applicants, or local economies.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Navel Mining

Science Friday had a great piece on the wonders of the human gut, and just how small a minority we humans are in our own body.

It got me thinking: Given the rate of mutation of viruses, and bacteria, and given the idea first broached by Charles Darwin on the evolution of species over time to adapt to their environment (check out his analysis of finches), are we not missing an incredible opportunity for research?

We, each of us, is a unique biological ecosystem. Our bacteria are tailored to our bodies from the moment we're born and suckle for the first time. We even have an emergency shelter to ensure the continuity of these specialized bacteria, in the form of our appendix.

I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on television. But couldn't some of mankinds woes, and cures, be found in the unique diversity of internal flora and fauna in our bodies? Who is to say that stomach and colon cancer, or naturally low cholesterol levels, aren't as much the function of some specialized bacteria as they are genetics? We've spent billions on trying to read the human genome, but not, as best I can tell, trying to mine wide populations of people to see what diverse mutations of, say, digestive bacteria, are extant. Perhaps the Japanese higher tendency to developing stomach cancer, for example, is tied to an imperfect bacteria that spews out teratogenic chemicals? Or one that interacts with the talc on polished sushi rice? (Helicobacter pylori has been linked to gastrointestinal damage, which is a clue to the validity of this premise.)

Dr. David Relman, a senior poobah at Stanford's School of Medicine, (the guest on the Science Friday podcast spawning this blog entry) talked about the paucity of funding for this research. I think that, in terms of dollars, collecting samples from a wide range of sample demographics would be a comparatively cheap way to 'mine' existing biospheres for chemicals, drugs and hidden dangers than the current, expensive genetic engineering or field searching.

There's a saying in the Jewish talmud that to save a single life is to save an entire world. Perhaps the rabbis of old knew more than we credit them.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

High Tech Meets Gun Porn



I've blogged about this before. Guns as fetish toys, guns as arguers, guns as status symbols. The insanity of people, even as a joke, to produce even a digital model of a cell phone built into a gun shape is revolting. Think child rape. To a pedophile, this is a sexual thrill, something to be remembered, fantasized over, and recreated if possible.

To a gun fetishist, this is another image to get excited about. To weave into their idea of "normal."

The folks that seem to have put it up make light of it: it's a woman's gun. It dials 9-1-1 when it's fired.

I hope Nokia puts them on notice about trademark violations. And that no one thinks to actually make one of these, even a fake gun. 

Idiots.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

There is the Death Penalty, and then there is the death penalty

Confession: I used to be a death penalty advocate.

That has changed, since there are, I perceive, two courses to the lethal injection chamber.

The first is the bumbling conviction. It typically includes little evidence, verbal evidence, and a cloud of suspicion. As someone who currently does not believe that the judicial system is even capable of meteing out justice in these cases, I hold these in abeyance.

The second is the blatant, obvious, 'why are we here' kind. That second case is there I puzzle at why the death penalty was not quickly and simply handed down and executed. Like this current one.

Please do not misunderstand me: excepting blatant, obvious issues, I have no love for state sponsored murder. Any reasonable doubt, no matter how much a stretch, is enough for me to want to stay the executioner.

But when the defendant, prosecutor and jury are all in accordance, there is nothing to be gained by fruitlessly attempting appeals when, in fact, the deed was done, and the perpetrator must remove him- or herself from the pool of live humans capable of these deeds.

That Old Microsoft Joke

Ubboy. I thought the days of Micro$oft jokes were long past us. But here we are, looking at the incredible effects of zapping the brain to bring it back to normal function. No more obsessive-compulsive behavior, no more paranoia. Just zap the brain, and watch it "reset" into normal mode!

Of course, just like Windows, we'll need to reset the brain early and often. And don't worry about those pesky side effects...

What is abundantly clear is that MedTronics, and the other medical/technology companies, stand to rake in what lunatic asylum owners knew for decades: zap 'em and they'll come back to life.

Or was that Frankenstein?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Divergent Visualization

I recently fell for Google's new browser, Chrome. And in doing so, realized that the web pages I have been seeing for the past year have little in common with what webmasters and their sponsors would have me see.

My news feed pages and random web accesses yield content, images, headers, footers... everything but the irritating, distracting advertisements. I've been using, and aggressively refining the parameters of, AdBlock Plus. (It's a fantastic tool, especially if you're a tweaky geek who likes his content clean. It's less good for neophytes, since you need to know about how advertising URLs commonly work -- get it wrong, and you won't get the content you want to see, with no real hint that you're missing the content at all.)

My point is that I move through a very digital world than, say, my content-blase daughter. Or several of my non-geek friends. They're all up on the latest cool car infomercial, or the funny facebook ad everyone's seen. I haven't seen a single political ad on any web site I visit. (And since I don't watch the boob tube, that means I've missed all the hullabaloo from both sides.)

What kind of consumer am I? How many others are there like me? And how would marketeers get to people like me, people that come late to movies to miss the commercials, listen to public radio, eschew live television and block Internet ads?

It's a great bubble to be in, but sometimes the consequence is being cut out of the water cooler conversations and other trivialities that let even the nerd hang with the herd.

I'll still keep my filters on "exterminate."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Friday, September 05, 2008

Solving Ecological Problems, Sans Politics

It's going to be hard to come up with a strategic, concrete plan on environmental conservation when there are parties that don't believe in either. That said, there are practical, cost-benefit positive things that we, all Americans, big business and small shops alike, should be doing. For the environmentalists they're a step in the right direction. For big business, they're smart, short ROI actions with no discernible downsides. For small businesses, they're not expensive to do, and add beauty and cache to the business, be it a one-person or one hundred person operation.

Here are a few:
Cost to create acceptable roofing substructure to deter roots from damaging original roof, rerouting of water chiller condensation to water greenery


ActionCostConsequence
Greener roofs:Apply sod, grass and other climate-appropriate vegetable cover to every flat roofed surface.Rooftop vegetation reduces water runoff and erosion. It insulates the roof, saving HVAC costs. On a macro scale, it reduces urban temperatures in dense, high impermeable cover areas, reducing municipal energy costs and required infrastructure.
Use manure to make ethanol:Use cattails to detoxify manure, then harvest the cattails to make ethanol.Harvesting systems to non-destructively harvest the cattails, changes to the ethanol production facilities to use cattails instead of corn.Cattails are five times more productive than corn for making ethanol, and they flourish in a swamp or sewage environment.
It's a double-whammy: reduce pollution in the Mississippi and Gulf Coast by removing nitrogen and other organic contaminants at the point of origin: animal pens, while creating, at the same location, an easily harvested product that's already at a transportation point. Saves logistics energy, reduces environmental control costs and, frankly, keeps the smell down. (And that means property prices up!)
Diversify feedstock: It's not just about corn!
The agri-industry is a fan of monoculture. This leads to an over-dependence on one kind of crop (see ethanol, corn and food prices!). There are many other, more efficient, cheaper to produce ways to feed our cattle. Let's use 'em!
It's cheaper to let bamboo, cattails, rapeseed and hemp grow wild and be harvested than to till, cultivate, seed, spray, spray, spray, and water until it's harvest time. Bamboo and cattails in particular are just like asparagus: harvest the juicy tops and let 'em grow back just as quickly. And reducing the size of monoculture crops reduces the possibility of a catastrophic failure of crop due to disease.
Use urban wind tunnels: skyscrapers funnel wind: let's harvest it!
Cost to install smaller, yet profitable versions of the wind turbines overtaking the West Texas landscape; integration of their output into the urban power grid.
Small turbines mean higher density on urban rooftops. Power from these can be easily integrated into the highrise, reducing need for municipal power. In places like the 'Windy City' this can have a significant impact on power availability and lowered distribution costs.
Slow down local driving!A few more minutes to get to short-distance locationsWhile politicians battle over 80MPH vs. 55MPH, we can each do our bit to increase gas mileage (decreasing demand) by driving between 55 and 60 MPH. A thirty mile commute to work would take only a few minutes longer if driven at 60, instead of 70, MPH.

There are lots of ideas floating around on how to save energy or harvest it differently. Ideas that are available, that aren't revolutionary, but require the will of the government to support it and the will of the people to change how they currently live. Baby steps can save us lots of energy, and buy us time to carry out more strategic energy reforms -- or oil drilling.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Google Goes Microsoft with Twitter Functionality

It was inevitable: the championed "do no evil" company would eventually start acting like its despised competitor, Microsoft. In the scheme of things, it's an innocent thing: Google's Blogger-hosted blogs will have all the main features of Twitter, an incredible microblogging tool. I say incredible because, like many of Google's inventions, it's a game-changer: part mass IM, part take-the-pulse blog, part instant public relations tool. Want to give a blow-by-blow account of Hurricane Gustav? Sure, just follow this guy, that guy, and this other person (twittering pets). Or find your own twitteree to follow.

My point is that Twitter definitely occupies a niche of communication, somewhere between traditional blogging and instant messaging. And Google, instead of taking the high road and building a bridge with this incredible service, is instead setting itself up to very easily pull the rug out from under Twitter. C'mon Google: you've got money, use it for good!

Monday, August 25, 2008

The iPhone, or: I Screwed Up

There aren't enough links to describe all the issues with this phone. But here's one, just for giggles.

I admit, I was suckered into buying one. My phone conspired against me, resorting to a campaign of random reboots and call dropping until I practically drop-kicked it into the next county (it's nearby, but it would still be an Olympian move).

It hangs. Up on me, on applications. And while I have only gotten the Apple version of the Blue Screen of Death a couple of times, I have been rudely dumped back into the keyboard menu a bunch of times. To the point where I've plain given up on things like Twitter, AOL, or getting e-mail from more than one Gmail account concurrently.

Clearly Apple's feeling the heat. At least, they've decided that over 400 megabytes in patches are better than the status quo. And, equally clearly, AT&T has screwed itself up royally by providing a 3G network that is not up to the demands of this high-bandwidth device.

What bothers me, at a much deeper level, is that Apple's use of the mysterious, Oracle-like communication style in dealing with operational issues. Where Microsoft at least had teams of mouthpieces to apologize in every language in which they had beta testers -- I mean, new users , Apple's resulted to a grass roots approach of Apple smart salespeople in stores and massive dependence on forums. As a businessperson, that just doesn't cut it. I don't want excuses, I want a root cause analysis, an SLA for how it'll get fixed, and lots of loving until it's done.

But I'll settle for getting my Twitter and 2nd Gmail accounts working.

Friday, April 25, 2008

When Customer Support goes Horribly Wrong

The names haven't been changed to protect anyone.

My son bought an HP laptop. It had some Wi-Fi teething problems, so I called tech support. It being a home computer, the phone call landed in Asia. After an hour of script-kiddy troubleshooting I had first the tech, then his boss, reading a paragraph about how the problem had to do with a router or the internet and that at that point they could not help any further. I'd tried the wireless on three different networks, with different IP and wi-fi settings, so that didn't fly. My son, the next day, called and spent six hours on the phone with equally talented people 14 time zones away. He got to the same stone wall. I re-imaged the computer and, somehow, all my routers and Internets started working again. Bravo, HP... remind me to stay away from your laptops.

I bought a Samsung color laser printer. It was on sale, a store model, and heck, the company I worked for at the time had Samsung as a client. I took it home and it flailed and ground and moaned and occasionally even didn't eat the paper I fed it. When tech support over the phone didn't work they sent a tech. Or, should I say, sent someone who had hands and a cell phone, because what he did was get on the phone to figure out how to open the printer. I kid you not. His fix lasted about ten pages, after which the gears ground themselves to dust. They sent a replacement printer (instead of the repair person they said they'd send). That arrived DOA: fuser heating element was dead. I offered on the phone to swap out parts, but they said that would void the warranty and not to worry, they'd send another printer ASAP. That was Thursday, and Wednesday (six days being the definition of ASAP), another printer arrives. This one is stripped bare. No fuser assembly, no toner assembly, no packing to keep the platen locked, nothing. As of this writing I have three printers, none of which work, and two boxes and a bunch of styrofoam, all in my bedroom. Cozy, but not the way I'd intended. I'm promised a call by the end of today and a new printer, along, I guess, with a truck to pick up this half-sixpack of junk.

This isn't meant to be a rant (although it's clearly therapeudic for me). It's to show how customer support, when closely enough process controlled, stops being about the customer and starts being about the company. There's a certain amount of money tied up in a sale, and, unless there's a customer who'se corporate and upset, the little guy can just go hang.

I posted a quick hurrah to HotGigs.com. Add to them LinkedIn.com and TheLadders.com for great customer service. Okay, their deliverable doesn't involve manufacturing or UPS, but I think support for tangible goods must be AT LEAST as good as support for services. The branding reminder for QA mistakes is in view longer, and makes for more and better conversation.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Customer Service the Way it Should Be

A quick shout-out to HotGigs.com. I accidentally signed up for it yesterday. Well, signed up for the premium site. I had meant to stay in the basic, free membership but had a spate of cranial wind breaking. $99. Not a bad deal, mind you, but I'm not in that phase just at the moment. So I e-mailed them and Brandon, not two minutes later, had already canceled the charge and sent me a note to that effect.

On-line subscription sites take note: this is the way customer service should work. Refund, no questions asked, have a great day. You can believe that, when I need their services, I'll go to them, because they know how to handle the hardest part of the business: letting go.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Disaster Preparedness, NIMS & BBC TV

Just finished watching a brilliant BBC TV episode of MI-5 entitled "I Spy Apocalypse." Forget that they got the details wrong on the nerve gas. Believe the tension, even when you know it's a drill -- I did an incident management simulation in Huntsville, Texas and it was almost as tense -- and it was just maps, tables, computers and two hours.

The real lesson for IT geeks was in the details: plans are quick to write, and rarely reflect the honest state of affairs unless continuous attention is paid to their upkeep. The plans for sealed operations areas, disaster management centers, etc. were all well on good on paper -- but they hadn't been completed by the time they were needed. So there was no alternate plan, since funding and building had already been approved and begun. There were no interim plans. Communications was limited to centralized nodes and easily (apparently) disrupted. Command devolution was disrupted when key people were out of place (well, dead, actually), and the devolvement of command was insufficiently documented in procedures.

Does this sound like your IT organization?

I had an incident of that ilk. My #2 had just left his job, I had flown out of town for a week-long conference, and the first night out there was a tremendous lightning storm. The generator took a direct hit, taking out our two core communications and data center locations. The manager tagged by me as in charge had been on his feet for 14 hours before the bolts started flying, and by 3AM was punchy enough to start making mistakes. The data center manager was from a group that didn't report to me, and the next day's manager had to work from less than perfect notes to figure out what still needed doing. And I was trying to remotely manage from two time zones and a conference.

I had a great staff, and an understanding management team. We lost backups that didn't kick off or were corrupt, a few files, one server and a lot of time. But had we not twigged to the need to recharge the UPS at least a little before bringing up the data center, we were at risk from a secondary catastrophic shutdown.

The MI-5 episode is a great example of what happens in the IT world when plans don't match reality, and why planning, updating and Disaster Recovery Testing are critical to successful, real, disaster recoveries.

This is a plug for the NIMS process. Check it out at the FEMA site.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

2038 and the March of the Sloths

I'm not a gloom|doom -er, but, just to remind any smug folks, Y2k cost buku bux and time to solve a very real problem started 40 years before y2k: the two-digit year storage problem.

I'm sure things will change, as they always do at an ever-increasing rate on all things tech, but 2000's no-leap-day and 2007's US-keeps-DST-longer-to-sell-more-candy both required last-minute and spasmotic programming changes because, although people had plenty of time to think about the impact (400 years and 18 months respectively), folks never got around to it.

The core issue is that businesses don't change what ain't broke right now, and businesses don't make code changes unless there is profit (or at least expenditure recapture) in the activity. To some extent this can be charged off as a 'cost of doing business,' or a 'customer retention cost,' but that doesn't make the job of selling architecture code changes easier on IT management.

To fix the 2k38 problem, not only will all UNIX-based operating systems need to rewrite their mechanisms for storing, computing and displaying dates and times, but all applications -- the older the more worrisome -- will also need to be checked, to ensure they did not mimic this issue in their data storage, system date reference, or date computation code.

A large school district had to go back and spend $100k's to find aged COBOL programmers who might have worked on their proprietary systems, that were originally written and never updated since 1971. That's 29 years of code running, humming, functioning. Then, when tested, not after 9/8/99.

'Oh, sure,' you could say: 'with the speed of technology change, there's no possibility that code written in 2007 could be running 31 years later!'

You'd be wrong. Payroll date processing, insurance and actuarial determinations and stock (and their incumbent taxation) have been in place for hundreds of years, and have changed glacially only by dint of governments (tax code restructures) and technology (stock prices now decimal instead of fractional, and daily volumes in the billions instead of thousands).

There are many systems, including the cores of Solaris, AIX, HP-UX and BSD UNIX, that have been given major updates since 2000. And billions of lines of code have been written depending on those operating systems. Lots of those, increasingly, are related to data mining from data warehousing. Data mining is especially time-sensitive, determining trending and history of things like, oh, I don't know, people's surfing habits!

While I'm sure that the operating systems and major applications (e.g., Apache) will have figured things out in the coming decades, custom-written code will only be changed if entirely replaced or the costs paid for in some fashion. And those of us who will still be around will have an excellent second bite at the exhorbitant profit apple sometime around 2037, when benevolent corporate governments realize they're only a few months from chaos. I'll keep my resume stale, and UNIX-centric, please.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What's above YOUR data center?

With the hurricane season in swing (full swing, in the case of Erin and Dean in the Gulf), thinking about the structural issues involving your data centers is a good idea. It's too late to move 'em, or harden them much. But if your data center roof is the floor for office space, and it's not concrete, it's worth taking some time to think about how you'll move your data center operations offsite quickly if a high-velocity storm approaches.

(Standard cautionary tale)
A school district in Houston wanted to make sure it's backup takes were somewhere outside of Hurricane Rita's clutches (remember, it was due to possibly push 17-20 foot storm surge waves into Houston, drowning a chunk of downtown). It was too late for flying it out: planes were being repositioned and cargo space simply wasn't available 24 hours before it it (there's that planning thing...). So they just sent one of the IT staff north in his car, with the tapes. Short trip long, he beat Rita to Austin by about six hours, by which time we had the measure of its true power. If it had slammed Houston, he would have been outpaced by the storm and attendant panic traffic (worse that it was, which was bad).

So, first aid for those of you with data centers not built for that purpose:
  • Make bare-iron backups now. There's always the change the latest patch or unmanaged production change slipped in Getting a snapshot now will reduce the time to get set up in your alternate environment.
  • Ensure your change management database (or maps and schematics of your data center) are up to date. If you need to move to an alternate data center, now's the time to order equipment you need but don't have there
  • Review communications plans with internal and external clients. If you have clients who need a lot of notice to get their alternate plans moving, the more time you give them the happier they'll be when they don't need to use them.
  • Test your environmental monitoring and control systems. Knowing there's water in your data center when equipment shorts out is definitely suboptimal. Ensure your water and air-flow sensors are properly placed. If you co-locate, make sure your data center managers do this work.
  • Know how to power down your network systematically. Review the processes.
  • Embrace your worst-case thoughts. Have sufficient heavy, waterproof tarps on-hand in case you need to cover the powered down equipment if your roof leaks or fails. Ensure you have trucks, forklifts, pallets and other equipment so that, if you have to physically recovery equipment from a water-damaged data center, you can do it quickly and possibly save your equipment. Don't forget IDFs and their attendant switch gear.
All this is tactical, of course. Strategically, this should be nothing more than an extra test of an existing disaster recovery system already in place. If it's not, this is a good time to start from somewhere.

One last thing: check out the National Incident Management System (NIMS) as a way to manage your incidents (which can run from normal upgrades to hurricanes). What's particularly handy about this system is that it is used by all major emergency response organizations (fire, EMS and, increasingly, police). This means they'll have an understandable connection into your response as they respond. It may be too late for now, but it is a very effective structured process tool for managing data center and IT operations.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Global Warming: Debunking the Cause

Global warming is caused by humans.
Global warming is a natural phenomenon.
Global warming?

I can't do much with the last. Folks in complete denial are the same folks that claim that, because they had an uncle/grandfather/sister who smoked and lived to a ripe old age, there is no scientific basis for tobacco being harmful. These are the same kinds of folks that believe the moon missions were staged, that fluoride is evil, and the earth... well maybe it's not ovoid.

As for the former two, there is an ocean of cool, corporate money invested in global warming denial (GWD) as to the human impact. Like many political debates, this is a distraction technique: it really doesn't make a difference as to whether or not it is human-caused global warming (HCGW). If the sea level rises even a couple of feet, we will feel the effects of a slow-motion global disaster, regardless of the cause. The question to be answered by the GWDers is: how much can humans slow global warming?

This is a totally different question than what's been discussed today. HCGW proponents are talking about scaling back carbon emissions. If you want to believe we can fix the planet that way, great. If you're a GWDer, the challenge to avert global disaster is actually greater: what's required to counter Mother Nature herself to keep this natural effect from impacting the global economy.

Unless, of course, the real motive behind these sleek, fat companies is actually not to spend any money, and their support of GWD is just a ruse to put off shelling out money until governments have to step in with too little, too late. And the poor and disenfranchised, as usual, will pay the ultimate price.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Hotmail -- it's not your momma's Gmail!

I'll preface this by saying I'm looking for employment, and Microsoft is definitely one of the companies for which I'd like to work. At the same time, and at the risk of being deuced by them, the new Hotmail is another example of the wide gap between Web 2.0 and Microsoft. (Hint: if you hire me, I'll help you out!).

I was really looking forward to checking out the new Hotmail. Having shown my spouse and friends the glory of gmail as opposed to clunky old Hotmail, I was really looking to see whether I should leapfrog back to Microsoft for my mail browser. After all, 2Gb does get eaten up eventually, and it would be nice to go to a web browser (the primordial SaaS!) with great features.

Alas and alack. The one thing I looked for wasn't. A simple thing. A little feature that spells the difference between software as a service and service as addiction.

  • Filters? Sort of check.
  • E-mail signatures? Check.
  • Bragging rights of being a beta tester? Check.
  • Mail forwarding? What, are you kidding? All your e-mail are belong to us.
In other words, Microsoft has made the terrible mistake of thinking that a really nice GUI could be a softer, gentler set of handcuffs than MS Outlook for keeping users corralled in MS-space.

Don't get me wrong, Google (hosts of this blog, for the purposes of full disclosure) does the same thing. But Google's "handcuffs" are in the form form of great features that don't hem the user in. I could host this blog on my Windows-based web site just as easily as on a Linux one. And connect it to RSS feeds or other throughputs without thinking about the corporate underpinnings. Forward my e-mails to Hotmail, or a personally-managed e-mail server. That I'm using Blogger (and Gmail, and Google pages, and Google documents, etc.) is a testament not to my enslavement to the mighty Google, but to the forthright, non-acquisitive nature of their web tools.

This is unfortunately yet another example of the inner nervousness, the insecurity, that has scarred, not marked, Microsoft in this market. It's a great enough company, with fantastic enough features, not to have to create artificial limits on its users. And each limitation, no matter how trivial it might seem, is viewed as yet another indicator that Microsoft can't let go of it's craving for domination long enough to let the market see the good, the wonder, and the benign nature, of its products' feature sets.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Blinded by the ADA

A federal judge mandated that currency should be distinguishable by the blind, as an acquiescence to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

My spouses, comment: "Great, but when are they going to get around to helping the blind see the traffic lights so they can drive?"

It's true that there are possible solutions to give currency a better readability to the visually impaired. Bills could be different sizes, they could be notched, holed, or braille punched. But these non-visual cues would actually aid in the defrauding of the blind if they come to depend on these features. Right now they have no assumptions, beyond trusting the giver, that they have the correct currency. In a system where the braille might be correct for the denomination, they would depend less on their trust in fellow human, and more on an artifice that is much more easily modified than all the watermarks, threads, microprint and other visually-oriented rigamarole.

From a legal perspective, it also would put a huge burden on the federal court system. If a person gives the incorrect change to a blind person, short changes them in effect, that's misdemeanor theft. If they modify the currency to defraud someone, that's federal counterfeiting charges. There's really no way to push that kind of law down into the state or local systems, since currency is, well, federal.

Added to all this is the cost to change every one of the American currency manipulating machines. Counters, sorters, currency reading machines, ATMs. Sure, it can be done: all these sorts of equipment are used around the world, where there are lots of countries with differently-sized and -colored bills. But the cost to do all this, the user acceptance, is incredibly painful and will actually help counterfeiters defraud Americans even more.

All in all, I think marking currency for the blind is a bad idea.

The handicapped (differently abled, challenged, et al) are just that: working in a world where everyone has some kind of limiter that keeps some part of them from operating at 100%. Short, tall, fat, color-blind, dyslexic, dispeptic, depressed, manic, obsessive-compulsive, sloppy: you name it, someone has it.

Of course, people who are blind, deaf, or do not have even usual range of motion of legs or hands are at especial disadvantage. And the ADA has done a great job of ensuring that handicapped accessible spaces are the norm, not the exception (although that may be due to the "ahah!" moment of businesses, realizing that those in wheelchairs have credit cards too).

In the matter of currency, I think adapting 'reading pens'--small form-factor OCR readers--is a better solution than overhauling the entire treasury system. Just as we ensure that parking spaces nearest building entrances are reserved for the handicapped, we should ensure that the blind have cost-effective access to these kinds of reader tools. And, if they can't afford them, then the government (federal, state, local) should ensure there is a program for them to be either given away, purchaed, or lent.

An even better solution would be smart card readers or credit swiping machines that have the ability to vocalize transactions. That would keep cash out of the loop, and the blind consumer more in control over their money. Banks could provide blind users with free smart card or debit card services above and beyond sighted users. After all, it would drive both loyalty and keeping more cash where they can get their greedy hands on it.

And keep the currency, as with automobile driving, focused on the sighted user.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Cheap Solution to Save Lives in Iraq

Phantom checkposts are easily set up and lethal to civilians and soldiers alike. With all the technology deployed to keep people safe, solving this problem is a no-brainer.

IFF (Identify Friend-Foe) is a forty-plus year technology geared to giving fighter pilots instant identification of planes in their area of battle. These radio transponders trigger a coded response whenever there is a coded query.

Checkposts could easily use this technology. Transponder codes would be changed daily, and checkposts would be issued a properly coded frequency. Vehicles approaching the checkpost could trigger an IFF request and, if they do not receive the proper response, know that they are driving into a trap.

If we wanted to get just a bit fancier, we could add a small satellite transmission package that would send the location and IFF codes up to US or Iraqi response teams every time an IFF mismatch occurred. That could get drones recording the scene, and air support on the way within seconds of a suspicious checkpoint being queried -- maybe even before the shooting starts.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

EULA weirdness


Just ran through an Apple software license agreement and came across this little gem: "THE APPLE SOFTWARE IS NOT INTENDED FOR USE IN THE OPERATION OF NUCLEAR FACILITIES, AIRCRAFT NAVIGATION OR COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL SYSTEMS, LIFE SUPPORT MACHINES OR OTHER EQUIPMENT IN WHICH THE FAILURE OF THE APPLE SOFTWARE COULD LEAD TO DEATH, PERSONAL INJURY, OR SEVERE PHYSICAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE. "

Dang. And I thought iTunes was the solution to everything.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Writing Tools... So close: Ooh, Missed!

I'm always looking out for a good tool to help in writing or mapping ideas. MindJet's MindManager is brilliant, if expensive for individuals, and not available on-line. PBWiki makes great tools for sharing ideas on-line. Google is helping me move a lot of my writing to the web by letting me move documents onto a universal desktop space. (To say nothing of Google Search itself, but I'm a bit biased towards that company.)

I'm hunting for the perfect -- or at least, usable -- idea mapping software. An acquaintance suggested Wridea. I checked it out and, sadly, have to say it takes writers back a notch in terms of usability. The fact that the software is affiliated with a mail list management company (read all those wonderful e-mails you don't want to receive) makes me leery of their motives in getting e-mail addresses from users and those with whom they share their idea maps. (Sorry, guys: smoke, fire, and all that jazz.)

If anyone has a better site for idea or story mapping, please let me know: comments always read.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jupiter's Little Mix Master

The small spot's getting redder!

Maybe it's pulling stuff up from lower down? Like, uh, because that's what vortices do? Of course, that'll spell it's doom.

I love Jupiter. Compared to the Earth it's an easy place to understand, and cheap speculation.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Explaining the War

I've been covering the war on Israel's northern border and throughout Lebanon, as well as in Gaza, since the first attack by Hamas resulting in deaths, injuries and one soldier kidnapped. Friends, co-workers, vendors, folks in the neighborhood.

The tools available on the web such as Google's Earth and map web site have been invaluable -- to a point. Zoom in on Israel's northern border and try to move east from the coast. At a certain point, the vision gets vague: satellite imagery gets blurry around Har Meron and Tsfat, and then totally unplottable. Check out this picture: the clear settlement is a border kibbutz, to the right is a land heading east towards Meron. This obviously helps Israel, but I wonder who makes these rules? Before North Korea's test-spewing of missiles, I was able to track, in painful detail, all of North Korea in search of missile silos and other military structures. Not all that many vehicles up there, by the way, except for near where South Korea might be able to see.

Here's another example: Lebanon's Beirut International Airport versus Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Which one do you think makes for better targeting?

So someone has pull with Google. Microsoft's Live site solves the problem by simply not providing high-resolution shots at all of Israel, but it's the same story on the Lebanese side.

I'm glad tactical information about Israel isn't being made available to Iran for targeting. Google is living up to its motto of doing no evil. But I think it's interesting that that ability is being governed according to what seem to be United States interests.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Sneak Appearance

I've been appearing recently in a column by a rather engaging reporter named James Rogers. It's nice to have one's opinions solicited. It's not as if I've been lacking in that respect. I suggest checking out his blog; he's got a lot of crisp things to say.

Monday, April 17, 2006

ERCOT's Fair Weather Operations Center

For those of us needing to keep large infrastructures up, but not in the Homeland Security fold, utility web pages of agencies (e.g., water, power, dams, and transportation) are great ways to know what's happening.

Today ERCOT lost balance of its grid. Odd how just a few hundred thousand kilowatts of demand can do that. Grids started losing power as the grid controllers flailed around, trying to stabilize things (I have a connection on the inside confirming this). Blackouts during rush hour -- a great thing to see.

The ERCOT web page, which, during easy times shows a real-time 'whats what' of power demand and operations, promptly keeled over. At this writing I've been requesting current status pages for about half an hour, with intermidable 'loading...' as the only result.

One would think that with all the blather about how great the Texan power grid is, they could at least keep a web page up when things start getting hot. Two thumbs down, ERCOT.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Intel using Apple as a Whip for PC Manufacturers?

I had two interesting conversations this past week. One was with some Intel mid-range folks, who were pushing really hard for my organization to embrace the new Intel Macs. We're currently freezing all Apple purchases, because some of our key software doesn't work on the new platforms (and, no, it's not a 'Mac Classic mode' issue).

They were keen to tell me all about the cool features of their dual-core processor, and made appropriately sexy-sounding noises about upcoming 'multi-core' boards. This compared to Steve Jobs' folks, who don't know themselves when their sales lives are about to change.

They were especially interested in talking with me about their onboard desktop management and enterprise management tools, which, for me, is a major stumbling block in deploying yet more unmanageable machines. (Okay, okay, they _are_ manageable, they just don't play with any of the same sets of tools we use for our PC-based systems.)

Today I met the Apple SE, a breath of fresh air when dealing with vendors. Call's 'em as he sees 'em. I asked him whether Apple was going to do anything with all the neat, new tools their platform now affords. Being a Jobbite, of course, he had no roadmap. But, he pointed out, it would sure be funny to see how this played out with the PC makers. After all, he said, Intel didn't dedicate over a thousand folks to get Apple, a tiny market player, retooled for their chipset; there had to be more to it.

Imagine the scramble if Intel popped Microsoft out of the desktop management business, just like popping a CPU out of a board. What's better, hardware-level management regardless of operating system, or hoping that booting and loading all those gajillions of layers of drivers succeeds before updating a computer?

I think Microsoft has a lot of changes in store. Not counting, of course, getting Vista out the door and into the market. I'm still not seeing the value of bloated operating systems.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Kyoto Meets Komen

I can't run the only organization that has this problem. On one hand, our plant management folks are talking about the millions of dollars we can save each year in deploying power management software on our computers. With over one hundred sites, all those humming computers between 5PM and 8AM, a lot of heat is getting cooled for no particular reason.

At the same time, the rise in grid computing (in which I have more than a passing interest), demands CPU cycles to be used to help create cures for cancer, new peptide polymers to create the latest designer drug to fight the dreaded liver spots, or seaching for Alf's home planet.

There's no confluence of interests in the cube farm. Sure, monitors can be powered down. With flat screen monitors, the heat difference is hugely lowered anyway. But that CPU, twiddling its digital thumbs for of most it's glacial interaction with humans, can't both effectively race for the cure while simultaneously give the HVAC systems -- and our environment -- a break.

The solution is to move grid computing away from the desktop, where the erg ROI is shaky and the grid software becomes an additional load on the desktop TCO, and back to the server. With their ability to manage larger jobs better, and with concomitantly faster payoffs, grid computing can be better accomodated. This is the logical direction: the grid community's ROI is better and the incremental cooling costs are better managed in a more efficient and better controlled environment.

And we'll let our faithful desktop servants sleep when we leave them at the end of the day.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

ROTFLOLing and memetics

Just a quick pointer to a blog I posted about language changes being decried by American linguists. Where we used to have words change flavor and meaning, such as "Gay" going from happy to queer (which used to mean odd), we now are integrating shocking, non-mellifluous acronyms like YMMV instead of the good old, red-blooded ones like scuba and radar.

Technology has been at the forefront of linguistic change since it's emergence as a consumer tool. Our transition from the Information Age to the Knowledge Age continues this trend with words like data-mining, blogging and podcasting.

Our ability to transmute reality is the core motivator to the transformation of language and the universal adoption, across languages, of their defining lexicon.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Blugging a Great Tool

Blugging being Blog plugging. Better than bluckstering (from huckster).

Anyway, pbwiki is a fantastic tool. I use it in a variety of ways:
  • It's the repository for my multi-novel, screenplay and short story universe. It includes a handy encyclopedia and translating dictionary, as I had to invent a language along the way.
  • I use it to log all my writing project links. I write from mulitple computers, and keeping a wiki of projects and links is a great way for me to plug in and work from everywhere.
  • It's a powerful novel writing and editing tool. I can have people look at chapters in progress and provide their feedback, without requiring any particular manufacturer's word processing software or even language.
  • Next project is to use the pbwiki vehicle to put up a comprehensive family history, complete with video snippets, photos and reportage. Most of my family didn't survive the Holocaust, but I interviewed my mom. 15Gb of video and over a thousand photos can be neatly linked with a single pbwiki
I'll spare you the marketing gorp the pbwiki folks supplied me -- I like my peanut butter crunchy. But I will eacho this: it took me about five minutes from the time I registered for the wiki to the time I had the framework for the wiki up and running. And it's been betting better and better, faster and faster.

If Google has the requisite wisdom, it will purchase pbwiki and fold it into blogspot. That would make yet another game changer for Google.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Gentle cyber-bullying or market slanting?

Microsoft is continuing its misguided methods to achieve market dominance, this time in the web information zone. MS/NBC. Note the precedence of acronyms.

I'm a free-wheeler when it comes to software tools: Microsoft has great tools, usually with fairly logical interfaces. I'm sensitive to CUIs (Cheesy User Interfaces), so if the tool is cack-handed to use, features won't keep me with it. That goes double for web sites. There are a lot that seem to go out of their way to be difficult to manage (Yahoo's portal and interfaces, for example), some that are neutral, such as Google, and some that are fairly handy if you'll only register as a personalized user and let them dump cookies to track your every move. (Yes, I know they log web pages and IP addresses. Yes, I know that properly mined, logs can provide quite a bit of information about users and their habits. Still, tack on an anonymizer and life is bearable in that regard.)

MSNBC's web site is fairly easy on the eyes, even when surfing anonymously. The simple text 'red alert' banner when there's a news flash is low-tech and simple, which is great because that's when these kinds of sites get hit hard, so why make them work harder? The cute little feedback buttons ("how many stars does this article rate") are also nifty, if useless in terms of the ROI for the individual reader (why should I care if lots of people like an article?).

This accessibility and handiness hits clear, hard walls when MSNBC feels the need. Want to watch a video? Sorry, only the latest version of Microsoft's Video Player. Want to cast a ballot on a public poll? Sorry, your browser can't handle that -- try Internet Explorer. So Apple users, Linux users, UNIX users, and those of us bold enough not to use the Microsoft products get left in the dark, unvoting, unloved.

This might make sense if there were some pay-per-view scheme going on. There is one: advertisements that play before and after the video clip. But advertisements (theoretically) play regardless of video player used. What's the profit for NBC whether Microsoft's tools are used? None, of course. Worse than that, they loose 'eyeballs' on advertisements that aren't paid. Not a logical or profitable track. And that's the key to understanding that the MSNBC relationship is little different from the MS Instant Messenger product: burn the brand in, no matter what the relative profit or cost is for the activity.

I can't even get a handle on why they wouldn't let people vote on non-IE platforms. Best I can figure, it's to up the frustration factor for users. Marketing stupidity!

So here's some free consulting advice to Microsoft (and if you hire me, I'll push to instantiate this): welcome all, but make ads on the delta.

Oh, you want it in English? Okay, fine. Allow anyone to view your content (check out CNN for ideas on how that works). But since you know what kind of browser is being used, add a commercial touting the MS product. You get up-front advertisement that you can control and tune to the user, and the user will sit though it because they want to see the video content. Perfect eyeball strategy. As for polls, use the simple bars you've been using until now but provide additional demographic or temporal information on the vote using IE-specific graphics. That way if someone wants to see the polling results as a function of time and location you can pop that up on some snazzy .NET-enabled service, while we poor Firefox slugs will have to make do with the raw data. Oh, and slap a little IE ad on the voting page as well: again, guaranteed viewing for your target market instead of cutting them off. And creating blog entries such as this one.

If you think about it, adopting this strategy can turn into a very measurable ROI for advertising investments, and you can more positively 'turn' viewers into users of your products. Okay, M$, I'm ready for my job offer...